Jerome Truran – ‘The Umko – a paddler’s river’

Title: The Umko – a paddler’s river

Hey Pete,

Congrats on doing this, man. Great job, highly amusing and excellent stories. What a ‘lag’ hey. Best part of paddling, for sure. Geez, good for you for trying to round up the old ballies, especially the ones who can’t write and those whose “fingers are too fat to operate a cell phone”. Glad you persevered and those stories are often the best. Overnight stop would be the place, hey. I just love this about SA paddling – all the stories man, ’cause the rivers deliver and it’s not like this anywhere else in the world.

The Liffey maybe, the Sella a little bit, but lame in comparison, though don’t get me wrong, I’m not sniffing at the Spanish fiesta’s after each race. Those are definitely competitive, but they just don’t have the stories – well, when Willem and Roelof Van Riet won the Sella, in the days before pumps, one of them pissed in the boat and didn’t tell the other, who was suiping it all out by mouth, with a drinking tube taped to the bottom. That’s a good one.

I messaged Dave Walker and Clive Curson on FB with your email. Told them you needed more ‘Walkin and Cursin’ stories, so hopefully they’ll get back to you. Clive’s old man Doc Curson was great hey, cigarette in his mouth, giving us all ‘SilverSun’ tablets and salt tablets at the start before every Umko. Silversun was a vitamin A to counter the D from the sun – great idea I thought, because it couldn’t wash off, though superseded later by waterproof sunscreens, which weren’t nearly as good; and who knows how much water a salt tablet in your stomach sucked out of one’s body in the race … though the extra sodium sure helped the blood buffers with the post race beverages, a benefit we all enjoyed, but were unaware of at the time. Thanks Doc

Roger Collinson

In the ‘early’ days of my time in Natal, so it must have been 1974-ish, I came round a corner in the river at No 2 and pitoned a nasty, submerged, infamous, but unknown to me at the time, horn rock that looked like a wave, right in the middle of the channel. It tore my bow, knocking it to the side. The boat sank, I bailed out and got it and myself to shore. That’s when I met Roger, standing there on 1 leg, facing a barefoot ‘hop’ out of the valley, as he had hit the exact same rock and lost his paddles and boat downstream, the boat with his crutches inside. He told me he had a spare pair of crutches in his car at the start, at Hella Hella bridge, so I said I would run out, get them and bring them back for him

He said he would start making his way back, so I gave him the take-apart spare paddle I always carried in my boat, to use as crutches, and my helmet to put around his foot to protect it, for which he was grateful. I hid my damaged boat in the bushes and started out at a trot. A couple of hours of run/walk later I was pleased to find my way out to the road and finally back to the start at the Hella Hella bridge. Doc Curson was knowingly still at the bridge (now why would he just happen to still be waiting there?). We waited a while for other stragglers to appear out of the bush, Doc finished his smoke, we located Roger’s car, got his crutches and drove off up the road towards the farm track I had come in on. I was thinking about the various forks and paths and game trail options I’d encountered at the end of the farm track, when who do we see hopping along in his underwear, shorts on his head to keep the sun off, shirt tied around his bloody foot, my helmet in one hand and my two half paddles in the other, with a big grin on his face, pleased to see us – Roger! Geez, did he ever make good time.

I got my paddle and helmet back, Doc drove me down the road I had come as far as he could, and then, not one to ever carry my boat if I didn’t have to and not wanting to waste a good river, I set off, duct tape in hand, back to the river to find my boat

It’s been a while now since then (41yrs!), but that’s how I think it went down that day. I believe Rogers boat was found, but his crutches were lost, not sure. Roger would probably remember that. Good times, hey. SA paddlers – bonded together forever by the rivers

The River

The Umko is a paddler’s river and it’s too bad that in the eyes of the South African and now the international public, that it’s overshadowed by the Dusi. What an absolute shame and a travesty of the media and public relations. The Umko challenges one’s technical paddling skills … and if you ever do get to run, which most of us have at one time or another, it’s most often WITHOUT one’s boat!!

I chose my University (Natal U Pmb) because it’s in Natal – big water country. Most of the river names started with an Um… how cool was that. It rains there man, the brown water thundering down the huge river valleys, which one drove downhill, down, down, down, sometimes 30 or 40 odd kms just to get to. First thing anyone did arriving at the famous Hella Hella bridge, was leap out the car to check the level. Then those little primate hearts started beating faster, as the powerful, surging mass of tantalizing, surprisingly flat water at the start disappears round the corner to No 1. Time for a No2, baba. Paddlers showed up at Hella Hella to do battle with the river, not each other. I think to this day that’s why there’s such a fantastic comradery amongst SA paddlers (Saffa’s – that’s a new name) and any other paddler who shows up there – paddlers united by the rivers, least of all the Umko

The Transvaal Canoe Union established slalom way ahead of the NCU, so when I moved to Natal in 1974 I hit the road running so to speak, being able to roll and control my boat before I ever got on big water. That was the best thing that ever happened to me. Without slalom skills and a solid roll, the poor local guys had such epic swims and near drowning experiences … I couldn’t believe they survived, let alone enjoyed it. Tough bunch of bastards

The race section on the Umko is big volume enough that long ago the SACF banned surfski type craft on rivers to encourage paddling skills, because if someone fell off their ski on the Umko, they could just get straight back on, without losing much time at all – the water was that big

When plastic river kayaks came to SA in the late ‘70’s, the section above Hella Hella, from Deepdale to Hella Hella, became the premier big water tripping section, taking over from Hella Hella to No 8. This section of the Umkomaas, just above the race section at Hella Hella is much bigger and tons more technical than the race course, including rapids 1 to 8. What makes the Umko race section so exciting, challenging and memorable though, is that South Africans race it in relatively unstable, slightly modified, but essentially long, unstable, un-maneuverable flatwater sprint boats, which have open, spray-skirted cockpits that cannot be rolled, ensuring a swim given the slightest mistake

The first time I ever beat my all time paddling hero, Peter Peacock, was the 1975 Natal K1 Champs, Hella Hella to St Josephines, the river was super full and I took my downriver boat, getting enough lead on the pack on the 1 to 8 section to just hold off Peter for 1st place, coming on like a storm trooper in the lower, flat section before the bridge in his K1, everyone else in K1’s too! Beating him didn’t diminish his hero status in my eyes at all. He is still and always will be my paddling hero. It gave me a surge of confidence in my paddling and decision making that I never looked back from


The People

Charlie Mason:

Officiating was a full contact sport in those days. In the 1974 Springbok WildWater trials, Charlie Mason, the official timekeeper, left Hella Hella in his kayak to time the boys further downstream, but wiped out, swam, lost his boat and never made it to the finish. Luckily Clive Curson (pretty sure it was Clive, or maybe it was Chris Greeff) was the first of the draw that day to get to the spot where they agreed the end of that trial should be, checked his watch, realized Charlie wasn’t there, jumped out of his boat and wrote his time down in the sand as well as everyone else’s, as they came in

Pops Chalupsky (Paul’s Dad):

One Umko overnight stop, sitting there listening to the stories, I’m pretty sure it was Rob Stewart who said that Pops Chalupsky once got a saw out and cut a double pair’s boat in half at the overnight stop way back when, because they (bladdy goons) couldn’t paddle and didn’t deserve to be on the water! I think they had ‘bumped’ his boat in the rapids or something. Anyway, Robbie Stewart is on FB – easy to check out


The Race

The Umko, more than any other river, gave most SA paddlers an unwitting head start in the sport of triathlon, many participating in the ever popular Paddle, Swim (fall out and lose your boat), Run combo. Triathlon wasn’t even a word anyone knew

I was always a thin, skraal kid, not that strong or particularly talented at paddling, just loved it – the racing and particularly river tripping. I made up for it in races by being very committed with my training and equipment and thorough, tripping it at every level, and this paid off for Rory and I when we won the Umko in 1978, which was also the SA K2 Championships that year. The Umko in those days was from Hella Hella to the sea, which always made a spectacular first day through rapids 1 to 8. At that time rapids 1-8 were one of the premier white water tripping sections, so I knew it well and we must have held off the big guns Robbie Stewart and Tony Scott (who, together with Peter Peacock, were also my paddling heroes). The second day is a lot flatter and we could see the bigger, heavier, Robbie and Scotty team coming for us. It just happened to be above a place where the river splits, with a shallower, but slower option, which we had scouted before. I said to Rory, (hold my beer, watch this!) and took the slower option, knowing that these two, busy Quantity surveyors with wives and family, who didn’t have time to scout the river, would diligently follow us into this very shallow section, which they did. Risky, but it paid off because we never saw them again … well, it gave us an extra half minute or so, just enough to hold them off, all the way to the end. Never paddled so hard in my life. There, that’s how we won the National Championships on the Umko (sorry, Rory). I was pretty fit though, training for the competitive overseas circuit at the time

Note: I am pretty sure this is how it was, Hella Hella to the sea, though I am surprised I don’t have memories of the Hella Hella to Josephines section. Paddled that section so often, it’s hard to remember specific times. Rory would remember – he has a better memory

Cheers and let me know if you need anything else – Jerome

Thanks for the offer of me coming back for the 50th anniversary. Would love to, but it’s a bit expensive and by March next year there’s two metres of snow here where I live in Canada. Come out here and do some cross country skiing some day. There’s also huge freshwater lakes for surfski downwinders in the summer

Say howzit to all the manne and bokkies for me (sheesh, the Canadian women here would crucify me for such a misogynistic comment)

Miss you all



Author: bewilderbeast

It's about life, marriage, raising kids, paddling rivers, travel in Africa . . . re-posting thoughts written over decades - at random, I'm afraid.

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